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Parenting in the age of Oscar Pistorius

The world is constantly offering us opportunities to learn wisdom and deepen our understanding of how the world works. The Oscar Pistorius murder trial has offered the general public a direct view into a world which normally remains hidden. For example, the workings of the justice system, and how the life of a person and all their choices get put under scrutiny and critically examined as the audience makes up its mind about who that person really is and what the meaning is of their behaviour.

Western society privileges the values of success and winning by beating heavy odds, especially when those odds were not stacked in your favour. Parents want their children to be brilliant, and charismatic and capable of anything and everything. Much emphasis has been placed in research on girls and womans' issues. Statistics demonstrate that when it comes to issues like mental health, learning disabilities, crime and addiction, men are for more represented than women.

Children, especially in privileged societies, are raised with an emphasis placed on accomplishment and maximising all their resources and opportunities to create a good life and derive maximum benefit for yourself. Pistorius, like many celebrities, became emblematic of those aspirations and values.

In the face of the tragedy of Reeva Steenkamp we see that these ideals can have a dark side and do not always translate into a good life. The question that many ask in the face of the narrative heard so far in court about the life of Pistorius is how do you bring up boys to embody societal values without making them vulnerable to falling into the trap of building an empire and then destroying it through mismanagement?

This is a rare parenting opportunity that we are privileged to be part of in such an intimate way. It is like a World Cup that has people pre-occupied with trying to follow and make sense of this tragic story.

As a parent the question is how can you leverage and derive good from this experience? Children are continuously being influenced through what they hear. The voices of those central to their development become the Greek chorus in their heads that informs how they make sense of the world and the meaning they attribute to their perceptions and experiences. Children are either party to or eavesdropping on conversations all the time. They learn not only from what is said directly to them, but also from the conversations around them that they overhear.

Without rehashing the story that by now is well known, one may just pick out some key lessons that, if taught to children, will build them into people who can build solid success and use it to enhance both their own and the lives of others in a sustainable way.

Here are some of the principle messages that need to inform your parenting if you wish to bring up children who actualise their talents, but become great people at the same time.

  • Always be impeccable. Be a person that you respect and admire, face-up with courage and humility to your mistakes and shortcomings. If you do so, people will recognise in your imperfection a reflection of their shared humanity and be willing to forgive you. If you hold yourself superior in the sense of being exempt from accountability, people will resent and wish to punish you.

  • Build a reputation founded on real delivery, not promises or illusions about who you are. Integrity builds credibility and trust. When you fall admirers will come to your defence and people will remain loyal and be forgiving. Don't ever make people feel it was a mistake to trust or invest in you. If you betray them, they want to see you fall. If you do not maintain people's faith and confidence in your integrity, then when you fall, whatever else you acquired and achieved will be lost.

  • Moral authority is the ultimate leverage. It cannot ever be taken from you.

  • Treat your imperfections with compassion. See them as the parts of you that you need to work on to unlock the power and potential inherent in overcoming them.

  • Disability and what you lack are there to bring out your real power and bring out the best of your potential, as well as direct you to where your true potential lies.

  • Shortcomings and disabilities do not define your identity or worth. They are rather parts of you that challenge you to grow in wisdom, skill and resilience. They give you knowledge that others, who by virtue of being able in areas where you are lacking, cannot ever access. Use that special insight to grow yourself and to assist others in the same position as you.

  • Take responsibility for your mistakes without self-hatred. Beating yourself up is just as destructive as denying or disowning your mistakes because ultimately it makes you lie to yourself in order to avoid your own self-deprecation and self-flagellation.

  • Honestly analysing and taking responsibility for your failings wins you the honour of your own spirit. The practice of this approach builds inner-strength, self-awareness and ultimately leads to peace of mind. Only dishonest people are anxious and defensive, constantly fearful of being found out.

  • Find out who you are by being honest with yourself about what you truly feel, need and value even when the answer may displease others. Never base your inner world, sense of worth or inner experience on audience reactions.

  • You are bigger and deeper than any challenge. Being connected to your vulnerability and true needs and feelings makes life more challenging and at times painful. They are a source of strength and depth. Leverage them to guide you to what you need to be doing to be most effective to care for yourself and respond constructively to your circumstances. They are not signs of weakness or of being defective and a failure - only self-pity is. Humility is having yourself in perspective. Your talents are gifts, you did not create them, therefore cannot take credit for them. The qualities you lack and shortcomings came from the same source as your talents - you need not think less of yourself for having them, rather see them too as gifts, places you can grow and access new resources, power and effectiveness. Your talents are innate. You did not create them. You may therefore only take pride and credit for how you maximised potential inherent in them and for the qualities of good character that you showed in how you deployed them.

  • You value is in your being, not in your accomplishments. You can accomplish very little on your own. Your success depends on being afforded opportunities, support and sponsorships. Always remember those who have helped you along the way and show your gratitude by showing them that you were a good investment.

  • Life is about contribution not winning. Winning is only worth it if it's used for betterment. Your real value is in your contribution and it cannot be taken from you. Only what you claim and keep for yourself can be lost.

  • If you aim to win then you might fall into the trap of expedience and justifying any means to achieve your goals. Winning needs to be a by-product of doing all the right things that ultimately lead to success. Your ultimate accomplishment is in the person that you become through your striving for success.

  • Treat your body and life with respect. Never be reckless or cavalier about taking risks or engaging in dangerous activities just for the sake of experiencing intense sensations. Your talents and physical attributes are gifts to be developed and preserved. Remember that they can be taken from you at any time and without warning.

  • If you are reckless with your life, safety or feelings you will be the same with others. Treat your body, your needs and feelings with respect. You cannot take others more seriously or respect others more than you do yourself.

  • Never cause unnecessary suffering. How you treat plants, food, bugs, animals shape your perception and sensitivity to life and affect how you perceive the world. If you treat all life with respect, you will not bring yourself to harm others.

  • Cultivate both intellectual and emotional curiosity. Enquire about people's experience and try to understand their world. This applies most especially to someone with whom you share a relationship. You can only achieve real intimacy and connection if you make others your focus. Real intimacy will make you feel secure in the relationship. When you are lost in self-absorption while with another you cannot feel connected to them and the feeling of disconnection will make you insecure and jealous.

  • If you want a real partner then strive to first be a partner. Consider how you can help your partner enjoy the party, network, feel a sense of his or her own prestige or advance in their world and not be relegated to being in your shadow.

  • Your real strength is in being able to rule over your own passions and exercise self-control. Strive to not only espouse your values but, more importantly, embody them so that others can see what you stand for without you needing to inform them of your ideals and beliefs. Who you are speaks most eloquently through your actions and deeds.

  • I will be your parent regardless of how far in life you might fall. I am there to support, guide and encourage you to become the best that you can be. I will be your lifelong mentor and back you all the way.

  • I will not take on your battles but will be firmly and unconditionally behind you. That was the responsibility that I undertook to honour when I brought you into this world. I may reject your actions or choices but I will not reject you.

  • In bringing you up my focus is on what kind of a husband or wife, father or mother and employee you will one day become.

As a parent always remember that your voice will be in your child's head when they thinks about life and try to make sense of the world. It will also be their inner voice or thoughts about themselves and their place in the world. You need to decide what kind of voice you wish to be - one of encouragement and wise counsel or criticism and undermining. Ideally you should be the voice of a person who wishes only the best for your child, which is a voice of affirmation, compassionate rebuke and constructive guidance. The most highly successful winners in life are those who, when put through the real trials of life, show substance, backbone and integrity.

Leonard Carr is a clinical psychologist and teacher. Follow him on Twitter @LeonardICarr

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